D&D General What Does the Choice of Dice Mean for the RPG? (+)


There are games out there that use both non-standard dice and are also d20 systems. Fallout from Modiphius falls into this category. You roll 2+ d20 dice for skills like shooting, but the damage dice are non-standard d6s that determine both damage as well as activating whatever special effect your weapon has.

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FUDGE dice are ridiculously easy to replace with a regular d6 without being annoying. I think a 1-2 is a minus, 3-4 is nothing, and 5-6 is a plus. Something like that.
Yes they're fine because they don't need a table or an equivalent.

Whereas most NSD situations do require a table, often a somewhat annoying/fiddly one.

For me, what a game's choice to go NSD means, at this point, after 34 years of RPGs, is "I'm not going to bother to run it and probably not even play it". I understand that you can do some things statistically with symbol-laden NSDs/tables that you can't do with normal dice without tables, but the majority of NSDs are horrible objects physically (unlike dice, which have been lovely for decades), unreliable and often biased (Star Wars had huge problems here - to the point where people could gain a real advantage by test-rolling the low-quality dice until they found ones which rolled favourably, which was common), and as you say, become virtually impossible to replace if a game proves unpopular or goes OOP. 3D printers are no solution because they don't produce high-enough quality objects yet (maybe one day) and are limited to hobbyist members of the middle and upper classes. Hell I know a bunch of British ultra-nerds, including multiple people with VR headsets of the expensive kinds, and I don't know a single person IRL who has a 3D printer. Apps are a more real solution but are so un-fun compared to real dice.

As a bonus with MCDM's game they were proposing not just d6-style NSDs but d8, d10, d12 and I think even d20 ones (though honestly with d20 the symbols would be so small you might as well just use a table).

@Snarf Zagyg - Agree completely with the way you break down the dice methods, though I might add that whilst dice pool games clearly fit under d20 as you say, they do lack one characteristic of that which is enough to I think classify them almost as a sub-species:

That the game will have multiple different resolution mechanisms. Moreover, these is always the implicit promise that there will be variety in terms of dice rolls- and that these variations will matter.

With WoD particularly but I think also Shadowrun there's basically only one resolution mechanic, and no real variety of die rolls.

Interesting to think about how Spire (which use the "Resistance" system) fits in - it's very close do the d6 category, but actually uses d10s for task resolution and always the same mechanism - you roll 1 to 4 d10s, take the best roll on a table (the same table is always used). But it also uses d3s, d6s, d8s, and d10s for stress damage rolls (possibly also d12s but I forget). I think it occupies a sort of interesting halfway-house between d6 games like PtbA and EZd6 and d20-style games. Which is also how it plays and is designed generally - midway between the two schools of thought.
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I find this analysis of dice associations a bit circumvent. To me what is going on is that we have essentially 3 main movements in the RPG space right now. The traditional, the light weight OSR/FKR philosophy and PbtA. It just so happens that the two later tend toward D6s, while the former tend toward "d20". The accosiations described with the dices hence to me seem to be essentially a description of the main contrasts between traditional and these two other movements.

Given the prevalence of these 3 movements, if you come across a new game you have never heard about, and se that it use d6s, it is a quite safe bet to assume it is inspired by the rules light or PtbA movements. The accosiations described hence are "sound", and do indeed point toward important rpg cultural phenomenoms. But trying to justify such associations by virtue of the design properties of the dice choice themselves, rather than with reference to these strong cultural movements, I am much more suspicious about making sense - at least in the scale done here.

It is a bit like if I was arguing that special dice is strongly associated with very rigid rules, and low emphasis on creativity, by virtue of me mainly having encountered special dice in board games..


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
The standard D&D polyhedrals have cultural weight beyond just the game history. There is something about the suite of platonic solids that fits the flavor of a medieval TTRPG. A dash of alchemy in the mechanics if you will. But I don't think D&D does enough to make them matter. I love how the Cortex system steps up to higher faced die as you can skill or use certain powers. I wish D&D would do more of that. Instead of more numbers of the same die when you cast a spell at a higher level, increase the die that you use. Have powers that let you step up the damage die for a weapon, etc.

d6 dice pools are for squares. ;-)


Well, at the most basic level, when a game maker chooses to use "unusual" dice, they want to distinguish themselves from other games, and possibly disassociate the game from D&D.


B/X Known World
Neither is it part of the classic line up of D&D dice. ;-)
If you say so...

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A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
what is the point of a d1?
When players ask to do something impossible.

No, seriously, a player gave it to me as a gag gift. It is a big, heavy, brass bearing ball with a 1 stamped on it.

I've been trying to think of a fun homebrew mechanic to work it into my game. One DnD playtest suggested giving inspiration when a player rolled a critical fail. This die would be a fun thing to hand out in that event. I believe they walked this back in subsequent playtest material. Didn't seem to be a popular rule. But I may still use that rule, just so I can hand out my critical-fail inspiration orb.

Any other ideas? (Note: anything that involves throwing it as someone would be a felony--it's bigger than a ping-pong ball, is solid brass, and heavy.)


I'm going to quibble with the entire essay at some point, but unfortunately I have to work and when I'm not working I have to finish writing the adventure for this weeks D6 Star Wars session. So I probably won't have time to actually think about this or argue it in great detail, but in a nutshell I think you missed the real assumptions built into different fortune mechanics are and what their impact is.

a) Fixed dice, fixed difficulty, varying bonus. This includes most "roll under systems" that do the process of play different but achieve the same results (Think how THAC0 with descending AC is mathematically equivalent to ascending AC bonus) such as for example BRP or GURPS.
b) Fixed dice, varying difficulty, varying bonus. Think D20.
d) Varying dice, varying difficulty. These are the dice pool games where you are trying to get the highest total to beat some target, either set by the DM or set by an opposed check. Think D6 or DitV.
e) Success based systems where the dice act as coins or complex coins. Varying dice. Generally Fixed difficulty. Think FUDGE, FATE, Alien. (Alien uses a 6 sided "coin" with only one side having a "head" on it.)
f) Success based systems where the dice act as coins or complex coins. Varying dice. Often varying difficulty. Think Storyteller where you can effectively change out the coins by altering the number of success faces they have.
g) Card based systems either with literal cards or dice acting as cards. These systems are a hybrid of the 'dice' and 'coin' systems in that they care like the dice based system about ordinal rank (9 is better than 6), but as an example multiples of the same result trump single values. These systems usually involve selecting your best result from a pool of available results.
f) Skill based fortune systems where some player skill determines fortune such as throwing darts or playing Jenga etc.

Finally, I propose that in dice based systems the size of the dice determines the largest bonus the game can provide since fortune mechanics tend to become less interesting as the size of the bonus approaches the size of the range of possible fortunes. In other words, a D20 game starts to break with the bonuses at the table start to hit +19 or higher and the fortune starts being relatively meaningless compared to the size of the bonuses. You can sort of deal with this by ensuring the gap between the bonuses at the table is small so that only relative differences in the bonuses matter, but even if you do that you've effectively implied that no improvement is possible greater than the relevant gap. For example if your system allows a +27 bonus, but no bonus smaller than +19 is observed when +27 bonuses are available then effectively you've created a system where the largest bonus is +8. Dice based systems tend to be in a sweet spot when the bonus tends to be no more than 3/4 of the size of the dice.

Choice of a D100 means more increments of skill before the fortune is meaningless, while at the same time means a longer era where luck dominates. Choice of a D6 means fewer increments of skill, and a shorter era where luck dominates.

Fixed dice based systems have the advantage of having easy, transparent and intuitive math and thus being easier to run than dice pool systems, coin-based systems, etc. Variable dice and coin based systems usually have unintuitive math where the odds of success are hidden from all participants - including the GM - and often therefore encourage play based on expected failure or illusionism.
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Mod Squad
Staff member
2. d20 Dice. I am using "d20" as a stand-in for the games that use any subset or variation of the "standard" dice as pioneered by D&D for RPGs- d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20. If the game uses only d12, then that's a d20 dice game for discussion purposes. If it uses d4s and d8, it's a d20 game. In effect, this is the name for any dice game that uses more than just the d6, up to and including the full set of standard D&D dice.

I think "dice staging" systems are rather different than straight d20 systems, especially because the staging is not necessarily d4 to d6 to d8, etc. I've seen variants that, especially at the high end, go like, d12, 2d8, d20. The statistics on the roll is not necessarily flat, and certainly if/how the player searches for bonuses are going to be different. Looking for a +1 bonus on a straight d20 is not the same statistical change as a +1 bonus to stage you from d4 to d6.
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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I think "dice staging" systems are rather different than straight d20 systems, especially because the staging is not necessarily d4 to d6 to d8, etc. I've seen variants that, especially at the high end, go like, d12, 2d8, d20. The statistics on the roll is not necessarily flat, and certainly if/how the player searches for bonuses are going to be different. Looking for a +1 bonus on a straight d20 is not the same statistical change as a +1 bonus to stage you from d4 to d6.

So I was gone all weekend, but I wanted to come back to this thread. Originally, I was going to go into more of the mechanics of the thread (as promised at the bottom of the OP) but I was already going long and I wanted to give this specific topic time to breath. I think that the issue of choice of dice (and how they are used) is incredibly important mechanically, and it's something I wanted to discuss in terms of RPGs as a game, and it's also something I think that videogames (with their focus on RNG) have looked at.

That said, the specific focus of this article isn't about the mechanics of the dice, or even fit-to-function of the dice. Instead, it's about the cultural assumptions (the semiotics, or signifiers) of the various dice that we use. I think that this has been touched on by some of the commenters already- for example, @Enrahim2 notes that the choice of dice might be a signifier of the type of game- something I am generally in agreement on (I phrased it as "indie games"). @MNblockhead ... perhaps jokingly ... mentions that the platonic solids are a good fit for the fantasy approach because they impart an alchemical feel. I hadn't thought of that, but it's true that there is something to it.

Perhaps a bit of personal history that I elided would help. I've been designing a lot of rules-lite games for personal use lately, and between that and some FKR games, I've noticed that I've been designing a lot of d6-based games. And I started to wonder ... why? Why am I doing that? I have this giant arsenal of dice, but every single time I sit down and make a quick adventure, I always default to some modified d6 system.

It's definitely not because I like the d6- I don't. In my "love of rolling dice," I rank dice roughly like this-
d12 > d20 > (d10 = d6) > d8 > d4

And it's also not because of fit for use. I think that there are times when, at a minimum, a d12 mechanic would probably work just as well (if not better). So why?

And the brief answer is ... because that's what people do. When creating a rules-lite game, when making an indie game, you use a d6. On the other hand, when you're making a "big game" or a "giant commercial game" you go for the "big set o' dice," or, a at a minimum, more than just the d6 (d10 at a minimum). While there are some exceptions, that's a pretty good rule.

This first initial post is getting people to discuss that (and, perhaps, disagree with that) before moving on to the specifics of different mechanics- why some games might have a better use for different dice.

In short, after this initial post and discussion, I'd like to dive more into the nitty-gritty of the dice mechanics of different games- the "game" part of the RPGs.

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